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Monday, May 25, 2015

My Take On An Open Letter From GRRM


A friend sent me a certain link, thinking it might amuse me. It did, sort of.

Here it is, so you can read it too. 


It seems people have been noticing how many characters you like get killed in Game Of Thrones. Some must have been complaining about it, because his response is rather grumpy. But I did chuckle when he pointed out that, among other things, Ned Stark is an idiot who warned his enemy - and then that they had cast Sean Bean in the role, what did people expect? Because, of course, he does  tend to play roles in which he is killed off. I can think of two off the top of my head - Boromir in LOTR and a man who got on the wrong side of Henry VIII in the miniseries with Ray Winstone(I forget the character's name, but he was real, and Mr Bean got to use his Yorkshire accent). Though he also played Odysseus in Troy and Odysseus survived, didn't he, and came home to a faithful wife and a loyal son, unlike the other Greek heroes. 

Then he went on to call William Shakespeare a psycho and argue that there are piles of bodies on the stage in Shakespeare tragedies. Well, yes. Though one play he describes with gruesome relish is Titus Andronicus, which was probably Shakespeare's first play, certainly early in his career. I must admit, that's one I can't watch. I had to read it at university and haven't read it since then and I didn't go to see the movie(what were they thinking, choosing that one?). It's too awful. There's even a scene where this man is standing making a beautiful, lyrical speech about his niece when she has just been raped and mutilated! But the thing is, it wasn't the only one of its kind. It was part of a very popular genre, the revenge tragedy. I guess he and his company must have decided to cash in on the craze,

And Shakespeare, like a certain American spec fic writer complaining about him, was a writer of popular stuff that everyone went to see. He was a commercial writer. If he was alive today he would probably be writing sensationalist stuff for TV. He wouldn't be getting invited to writers' festivals to talk about the deep and meaningful symbolism in his work. The fact that he wrote stuff that makes you laugh and cry and says for you things that you can't express yourself and has something to say about everything  is beside the point. He would probably be shocked to find people running courses in his work. I had a very faint taste of that once, when I found an online review of a short story I had forgotten I'd written, reading into it all sorts of things that had never occurred to me when I wrote it. 

Shakespeare was the sort of guy you could have a beer with at the pub. And he wrote plays that are still performed, not because they're great literature(though they are)but because they still have things to say to us. 

Then Mr Martin goes on about that dreadful, violent book, the Bible. Well, I can't deny that. I have always liked the Bible for that very reason, all the sex and violence ...;-) 

I read The Game Of Thrones when it first came out. I liked it for the believable mediaeval stink and discomfort and for the fascinating weather conditions on whichever planet it is, oh, and for all the eating that goes on. Some fans wrote a wonderful cookbook, which I have at home. I have since read more, though I'm not sure I'll finish the series, not because of the violence and killing off your favourite characters, but because, IMO, it has turned into a soap opera. I'm not a fan of the soaps.  I'm also not a fan, in general, of fat fantasy series, however good they might be. Terry Pratchett was another matter. His books weren't thick and it mostly didn't matter if you hadn't read the earlier ones, though you'd probably rush off to find them anyway.

To be honest, there are other books of his that I prefer. Tuf Voyaging, the space-based story of a man and his cats and their adventures in a seed ship. Fevre Dream, the story of vampires in the Old South and a vampire who is sick of killing people and wants to find another way of getting his nutrition, is my favourite. That was about to come out when he was in Melbourne for a very small convention at a tiny hotel in St Kilda, a suburb of Melbourne - the population is small here, so even US minicons would be huge compared to our conventions. I remember him saying that he chose that setting because it was a time and place where slaves could disappear and nobody would ask questions. He was working on the TV series Beauty And The Beast at the time. And I enjoyed his work. Fortunately, the early ones are still in print, no doubt because of the success of his later ones. Read them if you can. 

The Glorious 25th Of May! Terry Pratchett's Night Watch

                                                         
Truth! Justice! Freedom! And a hard boiled egg! (And no, I'm not going to say, "Make that two hard boiled eggs" - different universe)

Just now, I finished rereading Terry Pratchett's Night Watch. It's one of the later City Watch novels. It's one if my favourites. And it occurred to me that this is "the glorious 25th of May" as mentioned in the book,so what better day to post about it? 

In this one, Sam Vimes, Commander of the Cory Watch, is without the backup of his loyal crew, Carrot, Angua, Cheery Littlebottom, Detritus and so on, because he has been thrown into his own past. He does, mind you, have Fred Colon. Nobby Nobbs is there, but he's a child, who's carved himself a police badge from soap. Still, he's useful. The future zombie Reg Shoe is alive. There's a rebellion growing in the city against the current Patrician(Vetinari, the future Patrician, is still a student at the Assassin's Guild, though he plays a very important role in the story, as does his aunt, presumably the one mentioned in Guards!Guards!). The History Monks are around - and I had just been rereading  Thief Of Time, in which you first met Lu Tze, the old monk who exhorts you to remember Rule 1(beware of skinny old men) and follows the Way of Mrs Cosmopolite. Vimes is thrown into the past while chasing a genuinely evil murderer, and realises that if he doesn't mentor his young self and take part in things happening in thus history, he may never make it back at all to his wife, his about-to-be-born child and his friends - and the murderer is right at home in the scary old times of Ankh-Morpork.

As I said, one of my favourites and there's a delightful adaptation of Rembrandt's painting on the cover.

But I love pretty much anything of Terry Pratchett's and I love this universe because, unlike many other fantasy writers, he doesn't waste time on long lost princes and elves going on a quest. Well, there  is a long-lost king, but he's a cop first and foremost and uninterested in taking the throne, even if he admitted he knew what he was, which he doesn't. And there are elves, in the Witches novels, but they aren't Galadriel or Legolas, they're lunatics who would rather kill you than look at you. And as someone who reads her folklore I can tell you he has it a lot more right than those authors who fill their books with twinkling glamorous fairies. And yes, there are wizards, but they like their huge meals and long snoozes and have no interest in going on quests. 

What I love is that his heroes are ordinary people. They're Mums and Dads running an all night Klatchian takeaway shop or farming in the Ramtops or having a fight with the neighbours. And in Ankh-Morpork, they enjoy their unofficial street theatre, and Ankh-Morpork has long ago stopped fighting other city-states and started selling them stuff. Any barbarian invader who tries to take over finds himself leaving with cheap wine and a purple straw donkey and a lot less money than when he arrived.

I love it all! So, raise your glass of whatever and drink with me to Freedom, Truth, Justice and a Hardboiled Egg!

And to the wonderful, much-mourned Terry Pratchett.

 

Saturday, May 23, 2015

Two Happy Birthdays To Two Wonderful Writers

Today, May 23, is the birthday of Sean Williams, Aussie speculative fiction writer:

Publicity pic, seanwilliams.com

and the wonderful British children's/YA novelist Susan Cooper:

Profile pic from Goodreads


Both of them are massive bestsellers and both deserve it!

I must admit, I discovered Susan Cooper a long time before I had heard of Sean Williams. I stumbled on the first couple of novels in a series that became known as The Dark Is Rising, based on the title of the second book in the series, in which the young hero, Will Stanton, the seventh son of a seventh son, finds out on his eleventh birthday that he is the last of the Old Ones, destined to fight for the Light against the Dark, at the side of a Professor Merriman Lyon (yeah, he's Merlin). The sheer power and beauty of this novel has made it a classic. The author was already living in the US when she wrote it, but it's very British, based on the Buckinghamshire she remembered. Unfortunately, someone decided to make a dreadful movie out of it and I wasted a whole morning and $17 on seeing it. When it came out on DVD I refused to buy it even discounted.  But the book and the series were amazing and you wouldn't think she could continue to write wonderful books, but she has - The Boggart(a Canadian family bring home a desk from a Scottish castle and there's a boggart asleep in a drawer, poor thing!), King Of Shadows(American boy actor finds himself in Shakespeare's London), most recently Ghost Hawk, set in the part of the US where the author now lives, historical fiction and fantasy combined in a gorgeous story.

I remember writing her a fan letter, back in the days when you could do that by looking through a book of modern children's writers, which had postal addresses, and getting a reply. But when she came out here for a library conference in Hobart, I found myself tongue-tied, like the other teacher-librarians there - a bunch of fan-girls we all were!

I have  read and loved some of Sean Williams' short speculative fiction over the years, but more recently, I've had a chance to read his Trouble-Twisters series for children, written with Garth Nix, and great fun they are too, with children who have special powers that aren't always convenient. It's interesting to see how many SF writers have become very good children's and YA novelists in recent years. Sean Williams is an international bestseller who, like many other Australian writers, doesn't mind writing for local small press, which has published entire books of his short fiction over the years, and he had a story in an early issue of ASIM. 

Anyway, happy birthday, Sean and Susan! May your pens never dry up!


Thursday, May 21, 2015

Happy Birthday, John Flanagan!


My original plan was to do an "on this day" post, and there have been some interesting events in history on May 22( the Greeks beat the Persians, it was the start of the Wars of the Roses - even if you don't know what those were, I bet you'll know Game Of Thrones, which was inspired by them). And there were some interesting birthdays, such as Laurence Olivier and that awful man Richard Wagner.

But when I went looking for writers, I discovered that the wonderful John Flanagan celebrates his seventieth birthday today!

I remember hearing him talk about his first Ranger's Apprentice novel at a centre for Youth Literature event. Hmm, I thought, sounds interesting, but I didn't check it out for a while after that.



When I finally did get around to it, I was sorry I hadn't read the books earlier.

The Ranger's Apprentice, in case you haven't read these books, is a delightful series set in an alternative Middle Ages. In this world, women can do a lot of things they couldn't do in our world at that time and people drink coffee and tomatoes are around in "Europe".  And a boy called Will, who is small and really not much good at fighting gets a job as an apprentice to Ranger Halt, who is a likeable rogue, who managed to start up a program for breeding ponies for his colleagues in the Rangers by stealing some breeding stock from this world's Mongols.

There is a spinoff series set in Skandia, this world's Viking lands, about a bunch of boys nobody picked in the annual Brotherband trials, but who ended up winning the competition because their leader, Hal, is smart and an inventor.

The books are funny and serious at the same time and both series suggest that you don't have to be a big hulking knight to make it in the world (though Will's best friend is a big hulking knight, Horace).

Raise your mug of coffee to John Flanagan, creator of this delicious universe! And, sorry, Americans, he's ours! An Aussie!

Wednesday, May 20, 2015

The Ellie McDoodle Diaries: Most Valuable Player by Ruth McNally Bradshaw. Sydney: Bloomsbury, 2014

Ellie McDougall lives with her cheerful, over-the-top family in a nice, ordinary suburb and goes to a cheerful, over-the-top school which has Spirit Week, Crazy Hair Day and Teacher Twin Day, encouraging students to do silly but enjoyable things. She is a capable student and has two good friends, Mo and Travis.

She's good at a lot of things, but those don't include soccer. When her father becomes coach of a local girls' soccer team, Ellie feels she ought to be a part of it, no matter how hard it is to improve.

The story goes through several days of school time and soccer practice, as well as meetings of Journey Of The Mind, a group of intelligent kids who are working towards a competition. It features a birthday, a fundraiser and making stuff(due to the book's journal-style layout, it is easy for the author to draw the how-to of making ninja stars, flying dragons, etc.)

The style is very much like that of Jeff Kinney's Diary Of A Wimpy Kid series and, in fact,  one of our students, a Wimpy Kid fan, is simply loving this book. The characters are likeable, there are no real baddies(even the girl who yells at Ellie a lot on the soccer team is not that bad, and turns out to be a very good artist) and not too much happens, really. It's a nice, gentle read for young fans of the Wimpy Kid books, and not too many hard words. You don't have to have read the other books in the series(this is the fourth), as it's pretty much standalone. I hadn't read the others and had no trouble with it.

Recommended for children of about eight or nine upwards.

Tuesday, May 19, 2015

The Warlock's Child 3: The Iron Claw, by Paul Collins and SeanMcMullen. Melbourne: Ford Street, 2015




"The warlock Calbaras wants to revive the ancient, forbidden magic of dragons, and his son Dantar is vital to his plans. Dantar is on the run in an enemy kingdom, unaware that he is so important. Worse, his sister Velza is now working for the enemy king."

This is the third in a set of five short children's fantasy books by speculative fiction veterans Paul Collins and Sean McMullen. Actually, it's one novel broken into five parts from the look of it and, like the first two parts, this one ends on a cliffhanger. 

The story is great fun and not difficult reading, so good for older reluctant readers as well as younger ones; the characters are all in their teens.  

There is an endearing silliness about the characters' predicaments, and about Merikus, the talking rat who is travelling with Dantar and his friend Marko. Velza can do fire magic like nobody's business but makes some dumb mistakes in other areas that get her into trouble. The tone is light and cheerful; it reminds me just a little of the style of Anna Ciddor's Viking Magic novels, though the storyline is very different.

If you haven't yet figured out who is the dragon chick you aren't paying attention. How and why are other matters, yet to come. 

Dantar is still a bit of a whinger, but we'll see how it goes.

The cover is as beautiful as the first two - Marc McBride just can't go wrong.  I'd like to add that Sean McMullen is proving himself to be a very good children's writer. Paul Collins has been doing children's and YA books for done time, but Mr McMullen is better-known for his adult novels and short stories and his ability with fiction for young readers has been a pleasant surprise. I hope he will continue.

Well worth a read and good for your library if you're a school or children's librarian, but get the 
first two; this is not standalone.

Sunday, May 03, 2015

Two Fearsome Fairytales From France by Adele Geras. Illustrated FionaMcDonald. Christmas Press 2015Two


                                      

Here is another one of Christmas Press's delightful series of folk and fairytale retellings. This time the focus is on France, with the stories Beauty And The Beast and Bluebeard, retold by veteran children's historical novelist Adele Geras, once more lavishly illustrated by the talented Fiona McDonald.

Beauty And The Beast has been charming us since Lucius Apuleius's Cupid And Psyche in which the girl is to be sacrificed to a scary beast and instead finds herself married to the beautiful love god. (C.S Lewis used that one as the basis for his novel Till We Have Faces.) It tells us not to judge a book by its cover; the Beast can only be redeemed when a woman loves him for himself instead of for his looks, and Adele Geras does a little more than retell. She shows the reader just why Beauty might fall in love with a scary-looking man. She loves his "low, musical voice". He is intelligent. They talk about a wide variety of subjects every night, till she looks forward to their conversations. In the end, she, like Robin McKinley's Beauty, demands of the handsome young man what he has done with her Beast. 

Bluebeard is the truly scary story of a serial killer husband, but kids like gruesome. In this version, the mother urges her daughter to agree to the marriage because he's rich. He's old and much-married, but so what? Older men, she argues, tend to be indulgent to young wives. 

I often wonder what would have happened if the wife had not opened that room. I suspect the husband would have found another excuse for murder. There are plenty of Bluebeards in real life (Frederick Deeming, anyone?) who don't need an excuse.

The story is told well, anyway. And it's interesting to think that there's very little of the fantastical in this particular story, except the notion that the blood would still be on the floor or that the key couldn't be cleaned if it was. 

I think this book might suit children from about seven to ten. Any younger is too young. Any older and they might have abandoned fairytales for novels. 

Another excellent publication to add to your fairytale library!

Thursday, April 30, 2015

Footy Dreaming by Michael Hyde. Melbourne: Ford Street Publishing, 2015

                                                
    
In the small, footy-crazed Victorian town of Marshall, two boys play football and dream of one day playing professional football at the 'G(the MCG, Melbourne Cricket Ground for those of you outside Victoria). Noah is a Koori, Ben is white. They play for different teams, but become friends during their running sessions. And there's a scout coming to look for talent for the Bushrangers football club Development Squad. Will one of them - or both of them - make this first step towards their dream of playing at the 'G?  

This is a lovely, gentle story about following your dream, football, friendship, first crush(on Millie, one of Noah's classmates). There is a bit of racism in the town, though mostly the baddies on the Kookaburras team for which Ben plays. It never reaches the proportions of, say, the racism in Deadly, Unna? (Phillip Gwynne). But when Ben asks Noah why he became so angry at a racist taunt in the course of a game, because he sees taunts as just a regular part of the game, Noah is able to explain.

"Okay, then. It's like this. You aren't a green Martian. But I am black. When someone says what he said, he's insulting my people and...and our families..and our culture. Trouble is, guys like Elliot think that if you're black, you're a piece of crap." 

This is, in any case, a later era than Deadly, Unna? There are enough immigrant families in town that you can get Vietnamese food and Greek food and the Mayor stands up at a local event and acknowledges the traditional owners. Even Noah's father tells him racism isn't as great as when his mother, Noah's grandmother, was growing up. 

The single-parent family is Ben's. But his father, who smokes and drinks and is just a bit racist, loves his two children and makes a sacrifice for his son's happiness. Noah lives with two loving parents and a brother who is terribly proud of him. It would be interesting to see what relationship the nasty Mark Elliot has with his family, but you never learn that. Actually, all the adults in this book apart from Mark Elliot's Dad, coach of the Kookaburras, are so nice!  Everybody - Noah's Dad Paul, the teachers, Noah's coach, even Ben's Dad Joe. 

There are a number of things that make me feel this is a novel for middle-grade rather than YA. The characters are in their teens, but they feel younger to me. Their issues and concerns are younger. The closest there is to a romantic interest, Millie(who plays very good netball and joins the boys in their morning run)doesn't play much of a role in the story except to cheer on the two heroes when they play. Noah likes her but is too shy to say anything. While there are teenage boys like that it's really the sort of thing that belongs to a younger age group. I'd recommend this novel to children who enjoyed Specky Magee(Felice Arena, Garry Lyon) rather than Deadly, Unna? And the language makes it very suitable for reluctant readers. It's not a long read and there are few difficult words.

It is such a very Australian book- the landscape, the characters, the passion for Australian football -  but I don't think people outside Australia would have too much trouble with it. I don't even like football and I thoroughly enjoyed it! 

Highly recommended.